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Death by a thousand distracting cuts,
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This review is from: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (Hardcover)
In this short but informative, thought-provoking book, Nicholas Carr presents an argument I've long felt to be true on a humanist level, but supports it with considerable scientific research. In fact, he speaks as a longtime computer enthusiast, one who's come to question what he once wholeheartedly embraced ... and even now, he takes care to distinguish between the beneficial & detrimental aspects of the Internet.
The argument in question?
- Greater access to knowledge is not the same as greater knowledge.
- An ever-increasing plethora of facts & data is not the same as wisdom.
- Breadth of knowledge is not the same as depth of knowledge.
- Multitasking is not the same as complexity.
The studies that Carr presents are troubling, to say the least. From what has been gleaned to date, it's clear that the brain retains a certain amount of plasticity throughout life -- that is, it can be reshaped, and the way that we think can be reshaped, for good or for ill. Thus, if the brain is trained to respond to & take pleasure in the faster pace of the digital world, it is reshaped to favor that approach to experiencing the world as a whole. More, it comes to crave that experience, as the body increasingly craves more of anything it's trained to respond to pleasurably & positively. The more you use a drug, the more you need to sustain even the basic rush.
And where does that leave the mind shaped by deep reading? The mind that immerses itself in the universe of a book, rather than simply looking for a few key phrases & paragraphs? The mind that develops through slow, quiet contemplation, mulling over ideas in their entirety, and growing as a result? The mature mind that ponders possibilities & consequences, rather than simply going with the bright, dazzling, digital flow?
Nowhere, it seems.
Carr makes it clear that the digital world, like any other technology that undeniably makes parts of life so much easier, is here to stay. All the more reason, then, to approach it warily, suspiciously, and limit its use whenever possible, since it is so ubiquitous. "Yes, but," many will say, "everything is moving so fast that we've got to adapt to it, keep up with it!" Not unlike the Red Queen commenting that it takes all of one's energy & speed to simply remain in one place while running. But what sort of life is that? How much depth does it really have?
Because some aspects of life -- often the most meaningful & rewarding aspects -- require time & depth. Yet the digital world constantly makes us break it into discrete, interchangeable bits that hurtle us forward so rapidly & inexorably that we simply don't have time to stop & think. And before we know it, we're unwilling & even unable to think. Not in any way that allows true self-awareness in any real context.
Emerson once said (as aptly quoted by Carr), "Things are in the saddle / And ride mankind." The danger is that we'll not only willingly, even eagerly, wear those saddles, but that we'll come to desire them & buckle them on ever more tightly, until we feel naked without them. And we'll gladly pay anything to keep them there, even as we lose the capacity to wonder why we ever put them on in the first place.
Most highly recommended!
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Showing 1-10 of 28 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 12, 2010 4:24:56 PM PDT
A great review. I have just put down Carr and you made the most salient points for me. I will definitely hold on and, if ever possible, rebuild my deep reading capability. After having hooked up to the Internet in the last years I really felt something significant changed. I felt somehow muddled up. Carr makes, point by point, specific explanations why. So I started measures against my Internet induced dementia (not a Carr's term just a gist). To start with, I read Carr's book without interruption, from cover to cover. A rare art. I even made a little quiz (using the index) to check what I retain, a review to straiten and strengthen my memory. You need time for all that but that is the only luxury you do need to have. Less is more (a different point Carr makes). Just do not click on all those hyper links and do not get distracted when reading on line. Get on a meager diet. Take in the diet the/a writer made for you and digest it. That is the way you grow. Chaos spurs on only the super bright minds. The rest of us it makes stoopider. We do thrive with writer's guidance in unknown territory.
Of course, it is nice the net provides you with interactivity (and the way we can share and discuss our impressions like just now) but that should not be in the way of personal appropriation. It should not cheapen whatever was said/written, in a blur of single phrase staccato exchanges... You elaborate. At least that, personal cultivation of a reader, is another point of Carr's. A cathedral like cultivated reader, a mainstay of Western civilization, is an endangered species indeed.
A great review of a thoughtful book.
In reply to an earlier post on Jul 13, 2010 4:52:26 AM PDT
nehopsa, thank you so much! While many of my reviews are primarily to call attention to forgotten, out-of-print works, I think of this book as vital & required reading. As I say, Carr's research material confirmed what I'd felt, and in fact what I'd experienced myself. I limit my Internet time considerably now, and I'm consciously devoting more time to reading -- as I used to do in the pre-Internet age. I've even buckled down & started "War and Peace" at long last, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it.
From the tone & style of your comment, I think it's safe to say that you're in no danger of being stranded in The Shallows any time soon.
In reply to an earlier post on Sep 3, 2010 12:31:34 AM PDT
Alex Nguyen says:
nice review !
I am a college student going into computer science and it's been a long struggle for me to keep focused on school work when I have my iPhone on me with all the cool apps it provides (i also develop for the iPhone). Hope this book helps with my concentration for the rest of my school
good review and good insights!
Posted on Sep 26, 2010 8:28:25 AM PDT
Henry Brezenoff says:
Now, do I buy the book or the kindle version?
In reply to an earlier post on Sep 26, 2010 12:40:21 PM PDT
Alex Nguyen says:
i really recommend getting the book. it's more pleasant to read in the beautiful outdoors.
In reply to an earlier post on Sep 27, 2010 6:57:34 AM PDT
Thanks so much! I've re-read my copy since first posting my review, and Carr seems even more accurate & prescient to me.
Though I'd recommend the physical book, just to fully embrace the "deep reading" technique described by Carr.
In reply to an earlier post on Dec 14, 2010 10:31:37 PM PST
Amazon Customer says:
i read it on the kindle and did ok. i did click a little bit too much on the footnotes, but i was interested in the sources so I could find it later. in all it took me about 3 days to finish. I love the fact that the kindle has a site to review your own highlights and popular highlights for better retention.
Posted on Dec 15, 2010 10:00:50 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 15, 2010 10:03:03 PM PST
Dan D says:
I suppose Carr doesn't have anything against listening to audiobooks without taking a break to check your messages. If so, then I did an interesting experiment in the past 2 months:
I listened to two audiobooks by Robert A. Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Two weeks after that, I went to Sparknotes, who has a summary of Stranger in a Strange Land, and I read it. Here's the thing: there was only one aspect, somewhat minor, that I remembered from the book (which I don't remember now, and that's also something to take into account), that was not in the Sparknotes summary. On the other hand, the summary reminded me of details pertaining to various episodes that I had forgotten about.
Duration of Stranger in a Strange Land: 16 hours, 24 minutes. Assuming you read at 30wpm, twice the rate of speech, it will take you 8 hours to read the book.
Time required to read the summary: 15 minutes tops.
If I want to read for pleasure, then sure, I'll go ahead and read the book.
If I want to read for concepts, ideas, knowledge and wisdom, the summary satisfies the 80/20 rule much better. Even if I take one hour to meditate on a summary, I can read 5 book summaries instead of reading one book.
In reply to an earlier post on Dec 16, 2010 6:28:20 AM PST
I can see getting basic concepts & facts from a summary -- but wisdom? Seems to me that demands the "deep reading" that Carr rightly regards as so urgent. No summary of any meaningful book can possibly do it justice, nor can it provide the richness of a thorough reading (and subsequent re-readings), I'd say. And getting that richness is part of the pleasure of reading, isn't it?
In reply to an earlier post on Dec 16, 2010 3:43:19 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 16, 2010 3:45:04 PM PST
Dan D says:
That's a good point, that deep reading may lead to wisdom better than reading a summary.
To counter it, we could think of short stories that pack as much conceptual punch as long ones. I remember such stories, though not by name; but an equivalent TV series would be The Outer Limit. Their episode about nanobots repairing the human body was one example (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_Bre
Of course, to gain anything from a summary requires a period of reflection if the concepts are new; and it can be said that deep reading facilitates that period of reflection by belaboring the point.